Robots exploring the final frontier
Until Humans are ready to venture beyond the Moon, robots will be our eyes and ears throughout the Solar System. While it would be nice to see people out there, our fearless spacecraft, rovers and landers are doing a fantastic job. In just the past few weeks we’ve received fascinating news from the robots exploring the final frontier.
Rosetta and Philae explore Comet P67
After a journey lasting nearly 11 years, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet P67 in late 2014. On November 12th, the Philae lander, detached from Rosetta and became the first spacecraft to successfully land on a comet.
Due to the comet’s low gravity, Philae’s landing was to be assisted by harpoons and a thruster. Unfortunately both systems failed causing Philae to bounce and tumble across the surface.
Philae survived the rough landing but ended up in a position where its solar panels were not receiving enough sunlight to recharge its batteries. On battery power alone it still was able to complete much of its mission.
Contact with Philae was lost on the 15th of November due low power. In August this year, P67 will make its closest approach to the Sun and the increased sunlight may provide Philae with enough power to contact us once again.
Thanks to Rosetta and Philae, we now know have detailed images of P67. We know that it is composed of mixture of ice and dust and that the surface is covered in a layer of dust 20cm deep. We have also discovered that comets like this are not the main source of water on Earth. P67’s ice is different to the water in our oceans.
Dawn’s journey to Ceres
Following a stellar performance exploring Vesta, the Dawn spacecraft set course for Ceres in late 2012. Three years later it is now on final approach to the largest asteroid in the Belt.
On January 26th, Dawn was finally close enough to take better photos than the powerful Hubble telescope. These first images show the curious white spot that Hubble had photographed. As yet, we don’t know what it is.
Dawn has taught us much about Vesta. We now know that it has a metal-rich core. NASA scientists believe it is an example of the large planetoids that came together to form planets like the Earth. Further study of Dawn’s data has just revealed evidence of water flow on the surface of the dwarf planet.
Like Vesta, Ceres will soon reveal its many secrets to Dawn.
Opportunity’s life on Mars
The Opportunity rover arrived on Mars on January 25th 2004. NASA has no shortage of over-achieving rovers, but Opportunity is the super-star as 2015 marks the eleventh year of its 90 day mission.
In addition to longevity, Opportunity has set other records. It recently won the off-world distance-driving championship by travelling a total of 40KM, breaking the previous record held by the Lunokhod 2 Lunar rover.
One of Opportunity’s most notable discoveries is that its landing site was once drenched in liquid water. It went on to provide further evidence that billions of years ago, conditions on Mars would have been much more favourable to life than the parched, cold desert we see now.
Having exceeded its goals, NASA announced on January 24th that the rover’s new mission will be to seek out evidence of ancient life on Mars.
Opportunity is a renowned publicity hog and celebrated its eleventh year with a stunning panorama from atop Cape Tribulation.
A fallen comrade
And finally, let’s not forget the ones that didn’t make it.
Beagle 2 was a small British lander sent as part of the Mars Express mission in 2003. On December 25th, Beagle 2 detached from Mars Express to attempt a landing on the surface.
Upon touch down, Beagle 2 was supposed to make contact with the Mars Express orbiter. No signal was ever received. On February 6th 2004 Beagle 2 was declared lost.
More than a decade later, we finally have some closure. Photos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in January show that the little lander successfully made it to the surface. From the images, it is clear that only two of the robot’s four solar panels deployed after landing. The mystery of Beagle 2’s folded panels is yet to be solved.
Chalk up another victim for the curse of Mars.